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Renée Graham

Sitting down lets NFL’s Colin Kaepernick stand up for his beliefs

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick warmed up before a preseason game against the Denver Broncos on Aug. 20.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick warmed up before a preseason game against the Denver Broncos on Aug. 20.Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Let the jerseys burn.

Let countless Twitter eggs, behind a coward’s veil of anonymity, hurl racial invective. Let the police demand an apology. Let current and former football players, more concerned about their endorsements and carefully curated images, criticize his actions.

Colin Kaepernick will continue to sit down in order to stand up for his beliefs.

Surely the San Francisco 49ers quarterback understood the impact his simple, bold gesture would have, and perhaps that’s the point. By remaining seated during the playing of the national anthem, his dissidence is forcing necessary conversations about racism and police violence in a nation still struggling to embrace equality for communities of color.

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So when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played Thursday night before the 49ers-San Diego Chargers game — it’s also the Chargers’ annual Salute to the Military night — Kaepernick, as he has done throughout this preseason, will again sit. And his detractors will again accuse him of disrespecting the flag, his country, the military, police officers, his team, and even the NFL. (According to the league, players are “encouraged but not required to stand” during the anthem. And, to be sure, Kaepernick has his supporters — #VeteransForKaepernick is trending on Twitter.)

Now, if Kaepernick had been in the stands, he could have sipped a beer, thumbed through his social media feed, taken a selfie, or chatted in some approximation of a respectful whisper during the anthem, and no one would have cared. As it is, other than remaining seated, he’s done nothing more to draw attention to himself; then again, anything that challenges the dominant narrative about issues of race and police killings is considered inappropriate.

After last week’s game, Kaepernick said, he is “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Now people are recording themselves torching replica Kaepernick jerseys, the San Francisco Police Department called Kaepernick’s statement “foolish,” and Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee pathologically obliged to offer unenlightening opinions, says the quarterback “maybe . . . should find a country that works better for him.”

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Of course, that’s exactly what Kaepernick wants — a country that works better for him, and everyone else, regardless of race. Those questioning his patriotism don’t understand the concept. Wrapping yourself in the flag, but ignoring the principles for which it claims to stand, is not patriotism. It’s provoking your leaders and fellow citizens not just to be better, but to strive to be and do their best for the good of all.

For the young QB says this issue is “bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.

“This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change,” Kaepernick said. “So I’m in a position where I can do that, and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”

It remains to be seen whether other athletes, in any sport, will expand Kaepernick’s protest. Whatever happens, he is already another pealing grace note in an urgent hymn for racial justice. He stands on the shoulders of 1968 Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and especially Muhammad Ali, who blazed a path for Kaepernick, as well as members of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx who recently wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts, after the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

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Doubt, if you will, Kaepernick’s method, but not his heart. He is sitting out the anthem not to denigrate his nation but to make voices of discontent, including his own, heard. He is not anti-police; he is pro-equal treatment for everyone. Like athlete-activists before him, Kaepernick, with his silent defiance, may ultimately do more to make America great than any amount of divisive rhetoric dressed in patriotic bunting ever will.


Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.